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The Life and Death of Planet Earth: How the New Science of Astrobiology Charts the Ultimate Fate of Our World Paperback – January 1, 2004

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The Life and Death of Planet Earth: How the New Science of Astrobiology Charts the Ultimate Fate of Our World + Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; First Edition edition (January 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805075127
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805075120
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 5.9 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #892,042 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

According to the authors-who argued in their previous book, Rare Earth, that the complex life found on earth is probably unique in the vast expanses of the universe-our planet has a pretty bleak future ahead of it, one that is a mirror image of its past. Ward and Brownlee, a geologist and an astronomer respectively, claim that human civilization has flowered during an 11,000-year warm interlude in a recurring cycle of ice ages. In their view, "global warming," while possibly harmful in the short term, may help postpone the return of the ice. But not too many thousand years from now, skyscraper-high glaciers will again grind across North America as far south as New York City, and civilization will be driven toward the equator to survive, if not into space. Further into the future, the authors argue, the complex give and take between carbon trapped in rocks, water and oxygen in the sea, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere-the latter playing the most important role in climatic change-will eventually turn earth into a barren sibling of Mars. While the authors don't make an airtight case for their claims about how our planet's climate and geology will begin to rewind, they do deftly bring together findings from many disparate areas of science in a book that science buffs will find hard to put down. 15 b&w illus.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

The science of astrobiology attempts to answer some of the big questions that have long engaged the imagination of the human race. In this fascinating follow-up to Rare Earth, geologist/zoologist Ward and astronomer Brownlee, both of the University of Washington, draw an analogy between the planet's development and the human cycles of birth, growth, maturity, and death. They explain the Earth's natural aging process over eons by looking at changes in land formations, oceans, climates, plant and animal life, and the stars. Although the authors are adamant that human recklessness is hastening Earth's demise, it is just as apparent that this ultimate fate is inevitable. Given that the time frame is millions, if not billions, of years, it is difficult for the reader to feel a real impending sense of doom. Still, the authors effectively communicate their knowledge and sense of wonder while making the scientific evidence clear to readers of even limited science backgrounds. Thought-provoking and philosophical questions throughout ensure that this work never reads like a textbook. Readers interested in the environment and "the big picture" will enjoy. Recommended for public libraries of all sizes.
Denise Hamilton, Franklin Pierce Coll. Lib., Rindge, NH
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

The book is exceptionally well written.
They concluded in Rare Earth that we are probably alone in the galaxy; here they conclude that we will go extinct without getting beyond our solar system.
Dennis Littrell
With that in mind, you will really enjoy this book.
Amazon Customer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

53 of 54 people found the following review helpful By Technofreak on February 7, 2003
Format: Hardcover
The Life and Death of Planet Earth
This book by Ward and Brownlee is the follow up to their previous work, Rare Earth. In that book, the authors argued persuasively that Earth is indeed far different than the great majority of planets: complex life arose and flourished. They contend that simple life, bacteria, is fairly common and developed early in the life of this planet. Complex life, plants and animals, is exceedingly rare. It came about four billion years after the planet formed. In the sequel, the Life and Death of Planet Earth, Ward and Brownlee argue that complex life is now in the long process of dying out. They describe how the various complex processes that drive the ecology of Earth will die out leaving progressively simpler organisms behind. The authors describe how evolutionary progress from hardy bacteria to humankind will recapitulate itself to last days when the last fragment of life ends with the red giant phase of the Sun.
There are three major climatic events in the future history of the earth: the continuing ice age that we are in. The present warm phase is now being temporarily put on hold by the rapid increase in carbon dioxide due to human activity. This will end with then next round of glaciations will end human civilization. This glacial phase will end around five million years from now. It will end permanently when the plate tectonics will push the northern continents away from the poles. The next event will be the recombination of the continents to form the super-continent once again. The recreation of Pangaea will cause the greatest extinction in the planets history due to the disastrous effect it will have on climate. This will end the reign of complex life. The last great event will be the continuous brightening of the Sun as it reaches it end in life.
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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 31, 2003
Format: Hardcover
It might be that professors Ward and Brownlee are working on a new genre: non-fiction science fiction. Instead of speculations embedded in story form they speculate about the future in a narrative without plot or characterization or other elements of the story form. Of course they are not the only writers doing this, but they are among the best in a growing industry.

Well, what about it? I gave up reading most science fiction years ago because either the story elements were wooden or the science was ridiculous (or both). It is not easy to be simultaneously a master story teller and a polymath of science. We know that (e.g.) Asimov, Clarke and Sagan were exceptions and were able to combine both tale and cutting edge knowledge very well, and in some cases spectacularly well. But their world is gone. Today's science is much more complex. To write convincingly about the future it is not enough to be a world expert in one's chosen field. The future is influenced by science of all kinds; consequently it is requisite that one be an expert in a number of scientific disciplines just to avoid naive projections.

So it is natural that Peter Ward, who is a geologist and zoologist, (and, by the way, a sometimes poetic prose stylist, witness his expositions in Future Evolution [2001]), and Brownlee, who is an astronomer and NASA scientist, might join forces to augment their individual expertise; and that they might eschew the story form in writing about the future.

At any rate, this is an excellent book of speculation about the future of our planet aimed at a general readership. It is a fine follow-up to their Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe (2000). As in that book their conclusions are pessimistic.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on July 4, 2004
Format: Hardcover
It takes a certain amount of fortitude to confront your own doom. Ward and Brownlee, having acutely described life's beginnings in "Rare Earth", here portray the mechanisms of its end. With the course of life's evolution revealed in the work of many researchers, depicting the finale has rarely been attempted. Recent studies of the past have given the authors the tools for forecasting the future. They use the history of the planet to suggest the "tape of life" will be rerun - backwards. Changing conditions will reduce the options life has to continue surviving. As a swelling sun and dehydrating Earth limit choices, life will revert to simpler, hardier forms. At some point, although far in the future, life's opportunities will end. A bleak barren world will likely be consumed by Sol's energetic transformation into a red giant star. A lifeless planet will either skirt the circumference of that swollen star or be consumed in its fires.
Although a fiery conclusion is the ultimate finale, there are many intermediate steps along the path. Ice, which has covered our planet many times in the past, is shown here as one of the major signs of the impending finish. Seas withdraw from coastlines and habitat zones shrink dramatically. Weather patterns undergo massive changes from what we experience. The authors use "time transport" techniques to enable you to envision the impact of these drastic variations. You visit future scenarios where plant life's extinction has taken herbivores with it. Grasses exist for a bit, but it's too desolate for complex grazers to enjoy them. Harsh winds scream across those savannahs, dehydrating the soil until the grasses, too, finally expire. These conditions, Ward and Brownlee contend, have likely already begun.
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